December Theme: For Joy (Sarah Dooley)

When I think of writers and community, there are a lot of things I want to talk about. I can tell you about the kids I work with at the public library on Wednesday evenings, kids who have been coming for a year, two years, three years now to write together once a week. They know each other's characters nearly as well as they know their own, and I am privileged to watch them grow together as writers.

I can tell you about the critique groups I belong to, about how each individual writer weaves in a thread to the colorful tapestry of Appalachian voices. I can tell you about writing camps and college classes, impromptu write-ins and even the NaNoWriMo forums, one of the most colorful writing communities I can think of.

But when I think about writers and community, I have to go back to the start. I have to tell you about Joy.

Joy started a writing group in my hometown when I was a kid, and my mother joined. The members of the group were kind enough to accept not just my mother but her three daughters into their writing community. They never treated me and my sisters like kids, only like fellow writers exploring the world through words and seeking their own individual voices. When I think of writers and community, I close my eyes and I am back in Joy's kitchen.

This is something I wrote in 2010 to mark Joy's passing:

Things you do when you're eleven tend to haze out in the remembering, get fuzzier like old socks or recycled paper. You know you wore jeans with holes in the knees, but you never remember them being too tight, or too short, or too anything except exactly what they are in your simplified image: jeans with holes in the knees, a sign of being eleven in autumn. And your hair. The truth was that you probably drove your mother crazy with the snarls and the tangles. But in your mind's eye? Your hair caught the sun, it flew on the breeze raised by biking.

When I was eleven, my mother answered an ad in the newspaper. I don't remember this. I don't remember the first writer's meeting or how awkward it must have felt, pulling up in front of a house in a neighborhood so different from our trailer park.

What I remember, in that haze of looking back on eleven, is feeling completely at home in that house. Curling down into wicker and pillows, or soft sofa, or a corner of the floor, and listening to a sweet southern voice warm the cold places that winter and drip down the insides of the windows like condensation. I was a flighty kid, couldn't sit still for more than a minute, but I remember that voice lulling me, hazing out my rough edges even then. It almost didn't matter what she read.

But what she read – what she read was so real and so honest it should already have been written, not dashed out in a ten-minute session during a writer's meeting. What she read, it was so obvious – of course that's the way of things – of course that's how things are – except that nobody else ever quite found the words for it, as sweet and unassuming and matter-of-fact as she did, and even when she didn't read it – even when you read it yourself – you could hear it in her voice, honest and truthful and warm.

Eleven hazes out. Twelve is a little more clear. Then thirteen. The years kept passing, but the voice was always there. Filling up the cold spaces and giving us all her straightforward but oh-so-rare version of the truth. That voice, it was as much a part of my childhood as bikes and torn jeans and tangled hair, as much a part of my childhood as books and paper. Looking back, I learned a lot of truth from that sweet warm voice that slipped around me half-distracted, as matter-of-fact as oxygen.

I miss you, Joy. I miss your sweet voice and your warm words and your truth. You were well loved.

(In memory of Joyce Herndon Lackey)


  1. What a beautiful tribute. Joy lived true to her name; and her spirit continues to touch lives through you. Thank you for sharing!

  2. This is a lovely remembrance Sarah. Writing down those things that touch us about the people in our lives help them live on through the generations.

  3. Wow--this got me all choked up, Sarah!


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